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Porter gets 18-20 years

22 describe ex-priest's abuse, impact on their lives

By James L. Franklin and Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 12/7/1993

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
EW BEDFORD -- After 22 of his victims stood in court to tell anguished stories of their brutal assault, their shattered childhood, and their hope for vindication, former Catholic priest James R. Porter was sentenced yesterday to 18 to 20 years in the state's maximum-security prison.

The sentence means that before he can be considered for parole, Porter will serve at least six years on the 41 charges to which he pleaded guilty. As he heard impassioned statements from the victims, Porter, 58, appeared ashen and emotional.

He twice removed his glasses to wipe his eyes as he listened to the litany of charges from the adults he had assaulted as children.

"I have looked deep into my heart, and I want to say I'm sorry to all the people I have offended," he told the court.

At least half of the victims who spoke yesterday were speaking publicly for the first time. Their statements took 90 minutes.

They detailed during the sentencing hearing how they have suffered since the abuse and how Porter had overpowered or ambushed them, often telling them they would be punished if they told anyone of the incidents.

Some spoke of childhoods fraught with despair and depression. One victim, Mary Kennedy, said she attempted suicide at 11. Others described drug abuse, broken marriages, and, in victim John Warburton's case, "a downward spiral" marked by participation in drug activity, pornographic films and prostitution.

Several bitterly denounced the failure of the Catholic Church to act promptly, even when some parents told church officials Porter had sexually assaulted their children.

But most of all the victims asked the court to remember that the offenses were not committed against the adults who spoke yesterday but against boys and girls as young as 11. "I carry that dead child within me," said John Robitaille.

Judge Robert L. Steadman called the church's lack of early response "a mitigating factor in my sentencing" of Porter.

The assaults took place in the early 1960s. The criminal charges involve offenses against 28 people, but 99 men and women filed suit against the Catholic diocese of Fall River. Victims advocates say there may be still other victims.

Peter DeGelleke, Porter's lawyer, read a statement for him. Porter then tearfully addressed the court as his wife Verlyne sat nearby.

He beseeched the court to send him to a treatment program near his family because "I love and need them" and it would "give me an opportunity to prove I can be what I am supposed to be." Conditions of his parole call for him to receive treatment, but it was not decided where.

In the prepared statement read by his lawyer, Porter said, "My shame and humiliation is all-consuming . . . I need treatment. What led me to do the things I did is still somewhere in me, as I have learned, and, although I have been able to control myself, I am not, as I thought up to fairly recently, 'cured.' "

Porter received one 18-to-20 year sentence at MCI-Cedar Junction on five sodomy charges. Another 18-to-20-year sentence on a single sodomy charge was suspended, with 10 years' probation to be served after completion of the first sentence.

The charges involve boys and girls at parishes in North Attleborough, New Bedford and Fall River.

He also received 27 separate 3-to-5-year sentences on charges of indecent assault and battery on children under 14, seven more 3-to-5-year sentences for unnatural and lascivious acts, and a two-year sentence for assault and battery.

All sentences other than the first 18-to-20-year sentence are to be served concurrently with that one.

This was Porter's second jail sentence on sexual abuse charges. One year ago this week he was sentenced to six months in a Minnesota jail for molesting his family's teen-age baby sitter in 1987.

Porter, who had been free on $20,000 bond, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. A few in court taunted him with, " 'Bye, Jim."

Although he did not read it in court, the judge included in his sentencing memorandum a request that Porter serve his sentence in Minnesota "to the extent the commissioner of corrections deems it appropriate and agreeable to the laws of the Commonwealth," indicating Porter may be transferred to a prison in Minnesota.

Bristol District Attorney Paul Walsh said that while he cannot predict when Porter will be paroled, "statistics indicate that most individuals convicted on sex offenses are not receiving early parole."

The sentence was less than the two consecutive 18-to-20-year sentences sought by Assistant District Attorney Renee Dupuis.

But it was far more than DeGelleke, Porter's attorney, wanted. He had asked that Porter be committed to a sex offenders center in Minnesota so he could be near his wife and four children.

Steadman said Porter stood before him "as an effigy, representing all the other named and unnamed child abusers," but he had to make sure "Porter the man . . . be sentenced only for the crimes for which he has pled guilty."

Many of the victims blamed the church. "The Catholic Church protected its own," declared victim Daniel Lyons said in a forceful statement to the court. The church, he asserted, put the interest of clergy "above that of the flock."

Steven Merry said Porter "used God's name in vain to trap victims." Merry spoke gratefully of the parents who were willing to make accusations 30 years ago despite the disbelief of church officials.

He referred to parents who didn't believe their children's accusations but have tried to make amends since then.

Merry said he has lost all religious belief since his assault by Porter.

"My own son asks me, 'Dad, why don't you ever talk about religion, why don't you ever talk about God?' "

DeGelleke told the court in asking for no jail time for Porter that church leaders "facilitated the sexual abuse by repeatedly assigning a known pedophile, who had been proven unable to control his sexual activities, to duties requiring unsupervised contact with children for a period of four years after the diocese of Fall River was expressly aware of the nature and extents of his misconduct."

But Steadman said that "whatever the blameworthiness of others might be, there is only one defendant standing before the bar of justice, and he is James R. Porter."

The victims had asked for much sterner punishment, speaking with barely controlled rage.

Church officials in Fall River said they hoped the sentencing would "bring to an end a sad and troubling episode."

A brief statement from Bishop Sean O'Malley of the Fall River diocese expressed "his hope that the conclusion of the legal case will help bring healing and closure to the victims and their families."

The church in the Fall River diocese "has learned much about the terrible consequences of abuse," and seeks "to avoid such tragic events in the future," the statement said.

Although the Porter case involved the Fall River diocese, the questions raised by the case also confronted church leaders in Boston.

John Walsh, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, acknowledged that "the astonishing nature of this case" led the archdiocese to change the way it handles such cases.

Walsh said it was not time to try to rebut any accusations about the handling of the Porter case by church officials.

"I think this is a day when the victims have to be allowed to speak even in their anger, which is quite understandable," he said. "I don't think it would be helpful to attempt any kind of defense against what is being said by folks who have undeniably suffered terrible wounds and carry terrible scars from that experience."

SIDEBAR PORTER VICTIM TELLS OF SECRET AGREEMENT NEW BEDFORD -- The Diocese of Fall River reached a previously undisclosed financial settlement last summer with an additional 31 alleged victims of former priest James Porter, and is holding back $5,000 of the payment to each victim to ensure that they do not discuss details of the settlement, according to one of those named in the settlement.

John Doherty, 46, a school nurse who lives in Maine, made the disclosures yesterday in an interview at New Bedford Superior Court, where Porter was being sentenced. He claimed the diocese reached agreement this past summer with 25 men and six women who claimed to have been abused by Porter as children. The settlement was in addition to an earlier, well-publicized settlement reached with 68 victims last December, reportedly for at least $5 million.

Doherty's description of the settlement was confirmed privately by a source close to the case.

John Kearns, spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River, said last night he had no details of a second settlement reached between 31 victims and the diocese. He said Bishop Sean O'Malley, current bishop of the Fall River Diocese, was "out of Fall River and can't be reached."

Attorney Roderick Macleish Jr., who represented 99 of Porter's accusers against the Diocese of Fall River, declined yesterday to comment on whether such a settlement had taken place.

Doherty would not disclose the total amount of the second settlement, although the New Bedford Standard-Times listed the amount as $1.5 million. Doherty said that a key feature of the agreement was that $5,000 of every individual's settlement would be retained in an escrow account as "hush money," to be paid only if that person complied with a requirement to remain silent, not only about the details of the settlement, but about the fact that "there was any settlement at all."

Doherty said the stipulation called for the $5,000 to be paid 12 to 15 months after the agreement was reached if those settling did not discuss the case.

Doherty said his own settlement was $50,000, less the $5,000 held in escrow. He said yesterday that by going public about the agreement he would be forfeiting the $5,000 but felt it was important to come forward because "I firmly believe the Church should be standing up here simultaneously with Porter."

Doherty alleges he was assaulted by Porter in 1956 as a 10-year-old boy attending Cathedral Camp, a diocesan camp for boys in Lakeville; Porter was a seminarian at the time, Doherty maintains. His case was not among those for which Porter was ever indicted.

Doherty said, "We begged Bishop O'Malley not to include in the settlement that we couldn't speak about the fact that there was a settlement," he said. "But there was a threat . . . that the diocese was going to file for bankruptcy and we were facing real possiblity of not getting anything."

Michael Mone, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said yesterday that a stipulation that settlement money be withheld, if true, would be "very harsh."

"It is not unusual to have in a settlement a confidentiality provision in a case where a professional's reputation is involved," he said. "But I have never heard, however, of a provision that actually held back or escrowed part of the settlement to enforce that provision."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 12/7/1993.
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